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Top Design: Something Oldham, Something New

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Top Design, debuting tonight on Bravo, is the latest in a series of reality shows that are both good TV and brilliant demographic marketing. The makers of the addictive, high-middlebrow Project Runway have spun off their formula first to Top Chef and now to this interior-designer competition. What better way to get the upscale audience that Bravo targets than to take their favorite consumer indulgences–fancy clothes, fancy dinners, fancy home renos–and repackage them as cutthroat drama? Coming up this year is hairstylist showdown Shear Genius (originally called Top Hair). It won’t be long, I’m sure, before we see Top Aromatherapist, Top Barista and Top Life Coach. (Excuse me while I call my agent and copyright lawyer.)

The show is unsurprisingly in the Runway/Chef mold: telegenic creatives of quickly recognizable types, including a Santino/Jeffrey “rebel” figure who rides a skateboard and calls himself “half Henry Rollins, half Evel Kneivel,” a cranky old man, good-looking young guys of varying degrees of fabulousness, an eccentric with snow-queen hair who describes her style as “modern ethnic.” (It’s not quite as good as Vanessa’s “glamalistic” from last summer’s HGTV Design Star, but it’ll do.) Design is a more inherently visual medium than cooking, and the first challenge–the designers make over a room for a “mystery celebrity” in pairs–gets the claws unsheathed quickly. (“How do you argue with someone who’s a narcissist?” someone asks. As if there’s any other kind of argument in reality TV!)

The big weakness of the first episode is the host, star designer Todd Oldham. I hate to say this: he seems like a sweet guy and his easygoing, Muppety hipster charm worked well when he used to guest on MTV’s House of Style. But he’s too laconic and herbal-tea for a reality-competition host. Even when he criticizes a team’s unoriginality, it’s gentle and between-the-lines–“Oh, I see a lot of you have chosen green!” (Tim Gunn would have touched his hand to his chin and scared the crap out of his apprentices with a crisp “This makes me worried.”) Meanwhile, head judge Jonathan Adler is saddled with an awful exit line to see off the losers: “See you later, decorator!” I keep expecting someone to answer, “After a while, judge of style!”

Also, “decorator” is a kind of insult, because the term–distinguished from “designer”–describes someone who simply paints and buys things for a room, rather than seriously remaking its flow and layout as well. We know this from one of the contestant interviews, and this is where Top Design is as strong as its predecessors. It takes its competitors (and judges) seriously as professionals with interesting things to say about their work. There are problems to work out; none of the cast really pops in the first episode, and I wish they hadn’t given the competitors the help of a carpenter, which loses the hands-on, who-stole-my-glue-gun drama of Runway. But the show has good bones. There’s nothing wrong with it a little furniture rearrangement wouldn’t fix.